This accessible floating platform is a great place to watch wildlife. Photo by Joe Dube

This accessible floating platform is a great place to watch wildlife. Photo by Joe Dube.

 

In need of
inspiration — I
heard a little
bird’s call to see
new and
interesting
geography

Many years after sustaining my C4-5 spinal cord injury, my wife and I decided to take time away from work for a vacation to a place where the landscape varied from that of our backyard in the Pacific Northwest. Having lived many years amongst green trees, beautiful lakes and mountains where the weather in March is frequently cool and wet, traveling to southerly Florida below latitude 30 north appeared to be a nice destination. Florida seemed interesting to us with the ocean nearby, and March weather being warmer, in the 70s to low 80s, and pleasant. I sought a place to relax and recharge, and trusted that the little bird would be right and the time well spent.

Our visit to Florida Gulf Coast’s Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park began with a pontoon boat tour along Pepper Creek, a calm canal-like waterway surrounded by vegetation and wildlife. I rolled onto the pontoon boat via a gently sloping dock-ramp lowered upon the deck near the bow of the boat where there is plenty of flat deck for two power chairs, possibly three, or four manual wheelchairs.

Leaving the dock, the pontoon boat’s electric motor makes little noise, and we move slowly along the waterway as the park guide points out various wildlife species coming into view. There is no noticeable wind, and the water surface reflects the green and golden colors of the shoreline-rooted trees. In places, the arching foliage covers the waterway, creating a green tunnel of vegetation. In other areas the open blue sky above shines into the water. It is March and the air temperature is comfortably in the upper 70s. I appreciate all the green foliage, water, and reflected images as we glide forward.

It is common to see a friendly manatee, or two or three, at Homosassa Springs.

It is common to see a friendly manatee, or two or three, at Homosassa Springs.

The guide points out an American alligator lounging on the shore, warming its blood in the sun. This gator is about 8 to 10 feet long and a similar number of years old, as alligators grow about one foot per year until maturity. Mature male American alligators can exceed 12 feet, with very large gators exceeding 13 feet in length.

Further along, I see sunning turtles; these turtles are yellow-bellied sliders, the sunlight highlighting yellow stripes on the sides of their faces. The turtles are aligned upon trees that have fallen into the creek, creating perfect turtle perches. When the turtles are startled, they quickly slide off the trees into the water.

Later, the boat approaches a turtle swimming near the surface, its webbed feet visible as it paddles through the water. The turtle senses the boat and dives for deeper water near the side of the canal. I watch as the turtle vanishes into darker waters before the boat arrives. Not far away is a female anhinga, known as the snake bird, perched on a tree branch drying her wings in the sun; the bird has beautiful brown and shiny black feathers. The feathers of an anhinga are not waterproof, so they absorb water, making the bird less buoyant and a more capable diver and hunter of fish, which the anhinga spears with its beak. Later we see great blue heron and a large osprey nest.

Mesmerized by Fish

The pontoon boat takes us 1.2 miles into the 210-acre park, where disembarking, we are near the west entrance. Arriving at the boathouse, I notice the boat-ramp appears a bit steep. However, after the foot passengers are off loaded, the boat weighs less, decreasing the boat’s draft, and the ramp angle is a gentle slope.

Photo by William Garvin

Photo by William Garvin

The boat tour is wonderful and included with the park ticket price, $13 for adults and $5 for children. We take two boat tours, the initial tour from the main entrance to the west entrance, and a second boat tour when leaving the park on the return trip to the main entrance. If for some reason the boat ride is not of interest, you can skip the boat tour and take a three-quarters mile path to the west entrance, or park your car in the parking lot off of West Fishbowl Drive near the west entrance.

At the west entrance we are close to the Homosassa Springs and the West Indian manatee area. I take the rolling trail going to the left that leads to Homosassa Springs, which is a first-magnitude springs producing millions of gallons per hour, at times more than 100 cubic feet of water per second. The natural spring pool waters are clear, with varied shades of green, blue, and turquoise. I notice fish swimming all around the spring pool, with concentrated schools of hundreds of crevalle jack, snook, and mullet circling the spring vent.

Near the spring vent is a floating platform, an “observatory” that is wheelchair accessible and provides a great view of the spring pool. From the floating platform I look down upon the circling fish and into the spring vent and deepening shades of blue water. There are paved paths around the spring pool with many vantage points for looking at the beautiful spring waters and watching the fish. In addition to fish near the spring vent, many fish are close to shore resting in the shallows, or slowly swimming in the clear waters. Here a person could sit at waters edge for hours, mesmerized while watching the fish and having a nice conversation.

Sea Cows and Other Exotic Species

The Springs are home to many animals, such as these playful otters. The Springs are home to many animals, such as these playful otters.The Springs are home to many animals, such as these playful otters. Photo by Heather Dickens

The Springs are home to many animals, such as these playful otters. Photo by Heather Dickens.

Next we head to the West Indian manatee area, where there is a spring-water-fed park pool. There we see the large, roundish, blue/grey herbivores swimming. Through the crowd, I see three manatees in the pool floating near the water’s surface, munching on lettuce provided by the park guide as the guide shares information about the lives of manatees, and the people closest to the rail look down upon the manatees in the pool. From the pool rail you can get within ten feet of the gentle mammals with a close view of whiskers, backs, flippers, and flukes. Manatees swim into the park pool from the springs-fed Homosassa River, using a park controlled gate. At times during park presentations, sight lines are obscured by the crowd near the manatee pool. However, after the presentation, there is plenty of opportunity to see the manatees up close. After the crowd fades, we take our time and enjoy watching the manatees from the rail.

Depending on weather conditions you may see manatees near the spring vent as well. Manatees are about 10 to 12 feet in length and can weigh over 1,300 pounds. Manatees feed on sea grass, mostly in shallow water, and are sometimes referred to as sea cows. During our Florida visit, I frequently sighted manatees in the waterways as they surfaced for air, or as a slow moving brown or gray shape below the water surface, or upon first hearing their exhalation and then sighting a manatee face at the water’s surface.

That splash you hear could be a wood duck or a yellow slider. Photo by Jansing Scroggins.

That splash you hear could be a wood duck or a yellow slider. Photo by Jansing Scroggins.

Even when not surfacing, manatee flukes can cause subtle surface waves that can be seen in calmer waters. During periods when water temperatures drop, the manatees are attracted to the springs and the flowing, warmer 72-degree fresh water. When water temperatures drop below 68 degrees, manatees are susceptible to what is called “cold stress,” which can be fatal. Although a manatee’s shape may cause one to think the mammals carry considerable fat that could insulate them from cold temperatures, manatees actually do not have much fat, and their shape is defined by their bone structure. Thus, manatees are quite vulnerable to boat impacts, which frequently cause significant damage. Throughout Florida one notices signs cautioning boaters on speed, and to watch for manatees.

In recent years, surprisingly, the Florida manatee population has increased to approximately 6,300. In addition to seeing manatees at Homosassa Springs, we also spotted manatees about seven miles north in the waters of Crystal River near Kings Bay.

There are many other species to see at the wildlife park. Birds at the park include white-feathered egrets, pink-feathered roseate spoonbills, whooping cranes, and reddish-pinkish-orangish feathered flamingos. There are also river otter, Florida panther, cougar, bobcat, black bear, red wolves, and snakes in the reptile house.  We thoroughly enjoyed the relaxing afternoon watching the wildlife. The highlights were seeing the beautiful clear blue water at the springs with the hundreds of circling fish, the manatees, and the scenic pontoon boat tour.

Our visit to Homosassa Springs, along with other beautiful places on our trip, confirmed the little bird’s wisdom. I felt relaxed, reenergized, and ready to accomplish new goals.

If You Go

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Florida State Park is located at 4150 South Suncoast Blvd. in Homosassa along the Gulf Coast of Florida, next to US 19. The park is within 70 to 90 miles of Florida cities Tampa, Orlando, and Gainesville.

The author found his trip to Homosassa Springs to be restful and rejuvenating.

The author found his trip to Homosassa Springs to be restful and rejuvenating.

The park’s enclosed habitats appear designed to be naturalistic. According to park signs, “Most of the birds and animals living at Homosassa Springs cannot survive in the wild.” The park paths are paved and boardwalk, fairly flat, and easily navigated using a wheelchair. If you’d like to pack a lunch, there are park benches along the paths and picnic tables at the Garden of the Springs area. The park has food concessions near the west entrance.

Visitors should consider the time of year, weather, and using sunscreen and a hat when planning a visit, as Florida can be UV intense, hot, and humid, especially during summer months. If bird watching is of interest, Florida is home to the 2,000-mile-long Great Florida Birding Trail, and a short 11-mile drive north from the wildlife park takes you to the Crystal River Archaeological State Park, a location with 2,500-year-old Native American mounds that is also a bird habitat site on the Great Florida Birding Trail.
Resources:
Homosassa Florida, http://www.homosassaflorida.com
Florida State Parks Homosassa Springs, www.floridastateparks.org/park/Homosassa-Springs